The MTA experience dissected

About ~8 million people live in NYC, and almost every single person either has one of these cards or has used them at least once in their lifetime. When you think of images of NYC it’s almost impossible to not think of its subway system. What I’m focusing on for this blog post is specifically how people pay and interact with entering the subway system.

Considering 2016 is the most we’ve ever been connected to technology, it’s amazing to see how low-tech the fare system is for the MTA. A quick google search for ‘MTA plastic card’ yields the following top two headlines for articles:

Why fix something that isn’t broken?

Here’s how the current system works based on my assumptions. In order to ride the subway, riders must first purchase a fare. The fare itself can be purchased at automated kiosks found at every station. Riders can choose to add a Time Value or Cash Value to their cards depending on how frequent they ride. Once a fare is purchased, the rider is provided a paper card with a magnetic strip which can then be swiped at turnstiles that unlock allowing entrance to your subway.  Simple, right? Maybe 50 years ago. Let’s breakdown this experience a little further.

I’ll start with already having a card loaded with a fare. From my observations and experience, swiping is the most basic action one can take to enter the subway. However, I’ve encountered a number of people who have to swipe multiple times because the angle in which the slid the card produced an error. Interestingly, the tone that is triggered for this error doesn’t distinguish between whether the error was for swiping incorrectly OR if there are insufficient funds to enter. This can be a confusing experience for tourist at times. If we also consider that there are only a limited amount of turnstiles that riders can access, this whole experience can create a chain of delays of people moving through. However, errors aside, swiping successfully and moving through the turnstiles is fairly easy and intuitive.

Let’s now consider loading the card with money. It’s convenient that there are kiosks at every subway station which allows riders to top-up their existing card or purchase a new one. However, considering it is 2016, I”m a bit perplexed as to why the MTA hasn’t switched to a plastic card. Comparing the paper card to plastic card alone can be a blog post. Today if I were to lose my paper MTA card, I effectively lost money equivalent to the dollar value that I put on it. There’s no convenient way for me to report it lost or stolen. We can assume that if plastic cards were issued, we can embed chips in them that would allow cards to be registered. This alone would open up a new system that would provide an improved experience.

Also, producing plastic cards with chips in them opens up new experiences as well. The MTA in theory could allow customers to purchase fare for their MTA cards online at-home or via a mobile device. The unique ID on each card would be an important identifier for the rider which could allow MTA to load funds onto their account. While purchasing fare at the kiosks right now are fairly easy, there’s only a fixe number of them and riders in need of adding value will queue in line causing more delays to ones commute.

Overall, there’s plenty of room for improvement with the existing MTA system. I believe it would be possible to shave off minutes in rider’s experience relative to what they encounter today.


Published by

Patrick Presto

Currently @ITP_NYU | Previously @Square | Appetite for ideas + products + tech + possibilities